- Tim Rosaforte
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MIAMI -- At 7:10 Wednesday morning, with barely enough daylight to see the landing area, Tiger Woods ripped a drive down the middle of the fairway on Doral Golf Resort & Spa's Blue Monster. It was the dawn of a new day.
Woods has won the last two tournaments played on these grounds, shooting 44-under for 144 holes. He drove par-4 greens, beat Phil Mickelson in their now-famous 2005 "Duel at Doral" and won last year's shootout by a stroke over David Toms and Camilo Villegas. He was invincible.
But last week at Bay Hill there were moments when Tiger Woods didn't seem like Tiger Woods, the 12-time major championship winner and terminator of 55 tour events. He hooked a drive so far left on the sixth hole Friday, it could be called a Hillary Clinton. He stuck an iron in the ground and missed the 17th green 20 yards short and right, landing his Nike in one of Arnie's ponds like a resort golfer would do facing 200 yards over water. To be evenhanded, we can call that one a John McCain.
But this is Tiger Woods, and, wow, was it sobering. For one nine-hole stretch, Tiger was playing like any 10-handicap, with balls ricocheting off rocks to watery depths, and putts from three feet not even hitting the hole.
It was a reminder that no one really is bigger than the game, as much as it seems Tiger is at times.
Woods didn't need the back nine at Bay Hill to know how humbling the game can be. He has fought through swing changes, gone through stretches when he can't make a putt, but other than that awful third day in the 2002 British Open, when it rained sideways and the wind blew 40, it is hard to find a stretch of golf when Tiger's game went to those depths in such a hurry. One stroke off the lead, at a time when he usually shoots 34 to win the trophy, he made two doubles and a triple coming in, shot 43, and departed Arnie's playground without saying a word.
And that's what makes this week's CA Championship so captivating, not because it's a World Golf Championship event but because it's Tiger, and the Masters is two weeks away, and he's going for his third straight major, in case you've forgotten.
Woods hasn't forgotten. Nor has he forgotten what happened four days ago. He broke it down, analyzed it and now wants to fix it.
"Yeah, you look back at the finish, and I hit bad shots," he said at a news conference. "But all throughout the entire tournament, I kept making silly mistakes, mistakes I don't normally make."
As far off as this sounds, Roger Federer can relate. He, too, had what can be classified as an off week last week, losing in the second round to Guillermo Canas -- snapping a 41-match win streak -- at Indian Wells in California. Since Federer had the weekend off, he worked on his golf game and watched Woods work on his. The two most dominant athletes in the world talked about it Tuesday night, over dinner on Tiger's boat in Key Biscayne.
"He was in a similar situation to what I was in last week," Federer said after watching Tiger's practice round. "I tried to force the issue, and things just didn't go my way. Same with Tiger; maybe he tried to force the issue. He was down five shots going into the last round, so obviously the mistakes that happened earlier you probably forget."
The third leg of a second Tiger Slam certainly would make everybody forget the untidiness and mental errors at Bay Hill. As Woods explained Wednesday, he was working on some things in his swing and his stroke, and he didn't appear worried. He's just trying to solidify all that come the Masters.
"That's the point," he said. "You don't want to peak too soon. You want to peak on Thursday at Augusta."
It looked as though Woods was indeed peaking in the opening round at Bay Hill. He shot 64, hit 17 of 18 greens, made seven birdies, called it his round of the year and compared it to the way he played at the American Express Championship this past October in England -- a title he also is defending this week as the Ford Championship and the AmEx have become a historical hybrid. The next day, he was a completely different golfer, coming off the course after a 73, saying, "I'm just glad I broke 80." On Saturday, he turned 67 into 70, and on Sunday he went for the big number, the 76 atop a short list of poor final rounds.
It made everyone wonder: Is Tiger still the man going into Augusta? Reacting to the overreaction, Hank Haney issued a statement to The Golf Channel. He said Tiger spent the past two days in the most intense and focused practice session he'd seen.
"There's a long way to go before the Masters," he said.
"I expect he'll be ready to play well at Augusta. I'm not saying Tiger's swing was perfect on Sunday, but don't let a few bad shots that led to a terrible score take away from the good shots he hit especially the first round. Golf is a hard game sometimes, and Tiger is human. Bay Hill was not the destination, just a stop on the journey."
Woods moved through his dawn-patrol round at a slower pace than normal, working with the Nike reps on different drivers, hitting 3-4 balls off some tees. He was joined by Arron Oberholser on the 16th hole, and they talked a little about what happened at Bay Hill. Woods said how tough it was for him.
Oberholser noted that it looked tough for everybody.
"I think it shows not only that he's human, but it just shows how hard this game is, even for the greatest player maybe the game has ever seen," Oberholser said. "It can humble even him. If you're off with your golf swing, or your mind is not quite there maybe or you're not firing on all cylinders, it can break you down in a hurry -- and especially on the golf courses we're playing on this Florida swing. They've all been brutal."
The rough is not as deep at Doral as it was on Arnie's Champion Course at Bay Hill, but the winds are expected to play 20-30 miles per hour the first two days of the tournament. And with new TifEagle greens, shots aren't holding, so it will be another brutal test for Tiger and 72 other competitors on the road to Augusta. For Woods, last week might have been the best thing to happen. It showed he has some peaking to do before he reaches that destination.
Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine.
For one nine-hole stretch Sunday, Tiger Woods was playing like any 10-handicap -- a reminder that no one really is bigger than the game, as much as it seems Tiger is at times.